The War on Porn Is Back

“If you want better men by any standard, there is every reason to regard ubiquitous pornography as an obstacle,” declared New York Times columnist Ross Douthat in a 2018 column bluntly headlined “Let’s Ban Porn.”

In this, as in many things, Douthat was ahead of the conservative intellectual curve by a year or two. And in this, as in many things, he was dangerously wrong.

In due course, Douthat has been joined by the folks at the Christian journal First Things, who have taken up the anti-pornography banner as part of their peculiar subvariant of a resurgent interest in nationalism among traditionalist conservatives. In last year’s manifesto, “Against the Dead Consensus,” a clutch of First Things friends and familiars reject “economic libertarianism” and “the soulless society of individual affluence” and add that they “respectfully decline to join with those who would resurrect warmed-over Reaganism.” Which makes it all the more disconcerting when they turn around and immediately kneel before the scolding ghost of Ed Meese.

As attorney general, Meese sought to deliver on Reagan’s 1987 threat to “purveyors” of obscene material that the “industry’s days are numbered.” It was Meese who pulled together the first National Obscenity Enforcement Unit. (One surprising and familiar name also crops up in the tale: then–assistant attorney general and recent Libertarian Party vice presidential pick William F. Weld, who was given the task of bringing together various agencies for the task force.)

Meese’s bill of grievances against the relatively constrained pornography of his day—which he credited in a speech to a report from a federal Commission on Pornography convened the previous year—will sound alarmingly familiar to readers of Douthat and First Things. He asserts “that violence, far from being an altogether separate category of pornography, is involved with almost all of it; that there are empirically verifiable connections between pornography and violent sex-related crimes; that the pornography industry is a brutal one that exploits and often ruins the lives of its ‘performers’ as well as its consumers, and that the ‘performers’ often include abused children and people plied with hard drugs; that whether or not it is directly imitated by those who consume it, pornography has a deleterious effect on what its consumers view as normal and healthy.”

The effort was, in some sense, successful. By 1990, the Department of Justice had managed to use obscenity statutes to force seven national porn distributors out of business. But the decades that followed were boom times for porn as the industry moved into new forms of distribution, so the success was far from permanent.

In a rare moment of sanity in 2011, the Justice Department shuttered what had come to be known as the Obscenity Prosecution Task Force, resulting in the delightful Politico headline “Holder accused of neglecting porn” and a harrumph from peeved conservatives, who vowed to reverse the Obama administration’s decision as soon as they could.

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Author: HP McLovincraft

Seeker of rabbit holes. Pessimist. Libertine. Contrarian. Your huckleberry. Possibly true tales of sanity-blasting horror also known as abject reality. Prepare yourself. Veteran of a thousand psychic wars. I have seen the fnords. Deplatformed on Tumblr and Twitter.

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